I remember way back in the day (December 21st, 2009, to be precise), sitting down to watch Guy Ritchie’s fun-filled Sherlock Holmes, the one where Mark Strong plays the bad guy. Before the glory of Robert Downey, Jr. trying on a British accent overcame us, we were greeted with the highly anticipated, new trailer for Kick-Ass, the one where Mark Strong plays the bad guy. It was also around this same point in time the first trailer for Robin Hood hit. Robin Hood, the one where Mark Strong plays a bad guy. Yes, there’s a blatant pattern that has emerged here, and, though the tongue is planted firmly in cheek in bringing it to your attention, the results are no less apparent.
It’s called pigeon-holing, or pigeonholing if you’re not really into the hyphen thing, and it happens to the best and worst actors alike. Sadly, with the three films mentioned above, as well as a few others coming up, it appears this act of one actor finding himself or herself in the same type of role without end is occurring to Mr. Mark Strong.
It doesn’t, nor shouldn’t, have to.
Mark Strong is an incredibly gifted actor, one who could easily rise from the overly populated category of “character actor.” There’s nothing wrong with being a character actor. Some of the best actors and actresses working are considered such. Gary Oldman would be king of this subculture were it to form a monarchy. However, looking back over some of the past roles Strong has taken and dominated, one realizes he has so much more to offer.
It’s not that he is completely unfamiliar with the title of leading man. Strong played the lead in two serial dramas for BBC Two, Our Friends in the North and The Long Firm. He was BAFTA nominated for the latter. He also acquired the male, romantic lead in ITV’s version of Jane Austen’s Emma.
Strong established his acting career in the UK long before making his presence known in the states. I recall 2007 as the year I discovered Strong. This was the year he played both Septimus in Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust and Pinbacker in Sunshine for Danny Boyle. Granted, both of these were villainous roles, but Strong did a damned fine job in each of them. Both of these roles required Strong to hide his natural appearance, as well. In Stardust, he donned a wig that covered his face quite often. In Sunshine, his appearance was hidden behind heaping helpings of makeup and Boyle’s blurry imagery. To note, an actor having his or her appearance hidden but still able to allow the performance to shine through is yet another characteristic of the character actor. Again, see Gary Oldman.
But, whether playing the villain or not, Strong always had the presence of a leading man in these roles. In 2008, he played the head of the Jordanian Intelligence Department in Body of Lies, and he very nearly stole the show from the film’s leads, Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio. In fact, it isn’t looked down upon to consider Strong’s performance the most genuine element of the Ridley Scott-directed film. It’s going to be a little harder for Strong to do the same with Robin Hood. His Sir Godfrey seems more the out-and-out villain to Crowe’s Sir Robin Longstride. However, with Body of Lies, Strong just felt like the lead character even though his name was nowhere near the top of the cast list.
The same can be said for RocknRolla, a film whose protagonist isn’t really revealed until well into the third act. Much of that film’s ability to swerve the audience into changing their opinion of Archy late in the game is due to Mark Strong’s authority in the role and the way he seems right at home as the lead. It’s effortless, really, both for the audience and, seemingly, for Strong.
So, why does he keep landing all these villainous roles? Is it because British people make perfect villains, and Strong’s is the freshest face to jump the pond? That’s definitely a possibility. There doesn’t seem to be any insinuation that Hollywood doesn’t love a good, British actor leading the bad guys into defeat against the all-American heroes. You can see Alan Rickman on that one. Who better to take on these roles than one of the better, relatively new actors on the block? It could be the overpowering dominance in his voice, an attribute that was readily on hand in Sherlock Holmes.
With Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass, and Robin Hood either right behind us or right upon us, it appears Strong’s stock continues to rise. It doesn’t hurt his bank account nor help my cry to make him a leading man than he is set to play Sinestro in Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern. With other films on Strong’s horizon, films like The Eagle of the Ninth, The Guard, and John Carter of Mars, he seems to be playing secondary characters, not necessarily villains, but it seems he will have to wrestle scenes away from Channing Tatum and Taylor Kitsch. I don’t see much effort going into doing just that.
Whether Strong ever lands the leading roles he deserves or not, it seems evident the strength in his performances is something that won’t be waning any time soon. His name may never appear above the title of any given film, but it is time for Mark Strong to come out from behind the disguises of his characters. Maybe, hopefully, in the near future, we can stop cynically calling his next film “the one where Mark Strong plays the bad guy” and simply refer to it as Mark Strong’s next movie. That would certainly kick a little ass.